Ahhhhh the 80s…was there ever a better era in pop? Nope, I don’t think there was. Take 1982 for instance, the year that ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love was originally issued. Number one singles included (deep breath) Don’t You Want Me (The Human League), The Model (Kraftwerk), Town Called Malice (The Jam), House of Fun (Madness), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners), Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Pass The Dutchie (Musical Youth) and Do You Really Want To Hurt Me (Culture Club). Seriously…now that’s what I call (pop) music. Incidentally (and somewhat incredibly) ABC’s The Look Of Love was only the 32nd highest selling single that year, sandwiched between OMD’s Maid of Orleans and…er…Chas and Dave’s Ain’t No Pleasing You.
When The Lexicon Of Love album was first released one of the things that really made it stand out at the time was its lush string and brass arrangements (okay so maybe some of them were digitally generated/enhanced but they sounded good). Even 30 odd years later it still sounds great, one of the most perfect packages of ‘grown up’ pop ever produced regularly featuring in those ‘best albums of all time’ lists. Bear in mind that the band’s lead singer and songwriter Martin Fry was barely older than Harry Styles when he wrote this stuff and it’s even more remarkable. Of course properly recreating this sound on stage requires an orchestra, which ain’t cheap, so it’s hardly surprising that it wasn’t attempted until 2009 (when presumably the older, wealthier fans could afford such luxuries). Fast forward a few years and ABC (only Martin Fry remains from the original line up) are taking the show on the road for three all too rare UK dates kicking off with Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.
Anyone merely expecting a run through the album was in for a pleasant surprise though as the entire first half of the show was given over to some of the band’s other songs and, pleasingly, a couple of new songs too. After the band and orchestra had taken to the stage Anne Dudley (the genius behind the album’s original orchestration) entered stage right, took a bow and led the assembled throng (50 or so people) in a lush medley of classic ABC hits. ‘OMG’ as the kids might say (okay so there weren’t many under 40s here tonight but I’m down with ‘dem yoot’). There’s something about an orchestra that gets to you, embracing you in a way that few other genres manage, especially in such a sonically perfect setting as Symphony Hall. Add the inevitable nostalgia that comes with hearing the music that soundtracked your childhood and it’s a strangely emotional moment. Thankfully before I dissolved into a sobbing mass Martin Fry, looking remarkably dapper in a three piece suit (sadly not the gold lamé one), breezed onto the stage and launched into a silky smooth version of When Smokie Sings. It’s perfection. The band (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, bongos and two sublimely soulful backing singers) and orchestra combine to produce one of the richest sounds it’s ever been my pleasure to hear, elevating the pop of my youth to heavenly new heights. Orchestral-gasmic. I could write a decent dissertation on the highlights of Act I but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit it to one of the new tracks, 10 Below Zero, a mellow mix of Dusty Springfield soul and Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, Ocean Blue, How To A Millionaire (so much better this evening than the recorded version) and a heartbreakingly beautiful Be Near Me. In between Fry managed to tread the fine line between getting the crowd going and straying into holiday camp territory (you know the kind of thing…”Let’s see those hands in the air…”), reminiscing about his first Birmingham gig at a club called Holy City Zoo when he and the band played to 24 people (by a strange quirk of fate we were actually sat next to one of those 24!).
That was just the first half. After a 20 minute break it was on to the main event (although strangely I almost preferred the excitement of not knowing what was next during the first part of the show). From the lushly symphonic overture preceding the album’s first track Show Me hundreds of 40-somethings were instantly propelled back a decade or three to their bedrooms, walls adorned with posters torn from Smash Hits and, if they were lucky, a Sony Walkman permanently glued to their ears. It’s met with a huge whoop from the crowd who go three shades of mental with the next track Poison Arrow, a mass clap along threatening to almost drown out the orchestra at one point. It’s classy, sophisticated, soulful pop that’s stood the test of time so much better than some of its early 80s counterparts and Anne Dudley’s subtle refinements add an extra fresh zing. Taking a breather Fry recounted a story about recording the album. Apparently Bowie popped in to the studios one day on his way to see Tony Visconti and had a natter with the band…except for Martin who’d popped out to get a sandwich. By the time he’d got back the Diamond Dog had gone. Gutted? Who wouldn’t be? Appropriately enough the next track said it all…Tears Are Not Enough. Awww bless.
By the time we get to Look Of Love (sax, drums and pop ‘n’ soul) pretty much everyone’s on their feet and singing/dancing along and who can blame them. Of all tonight’s tracks it’s the one that benefits the most from having a full orchestra on tap, conjuring up a sound that’s a rich as a deep fried truffle and foie gras sandwich. If heaven has a nightclub this’ll be on the playlist. It went down so well in fact they played it twice…no, make that three times. Unable the manage the traditional band off/band on again routine (50 people and their instruments can’t really dash off easily) the orchestra remained seated. Dudley returned to the stage, theatrically shhhh-ing the crowd with a wink before leading an even lusher instrumental version before Fry joined them on a set closing third performance.
After Heaven 17’s slightly slack showing at the Town Hall recently tonight was a masterclass in not only revisiting your past glories but topping ‘em. It was, it has to said, some-string truly special…